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Way Back to School

LAST NIGHT, CURT AND I ATTENDED our second-to-last elementary back-to-school night. Peezer is in 4th grade now. This is the year he starts instrumental music (he has chosen the clarinet). He's already looking forward to becoming a "patrol" in fifth grade. Third through Fifth grades are probably my favorite years for kids and we are enjoying him immensely these days.

While explaining the homework policy, his teacher said she understands when sometimes, the homework just doesn't happen, for whatever reason. Then she told how she remembers ALL TOO WELL her own fourth grade year, when her mother made her stay in and do homework on HALLOWEEN NIGHT even though all the other kids were trick-or-treating. You could tell from her voice that she was over it, mostly.

I, too, remember fourth grade, mostly with nostalgic fondness, but for one thing. We had this independent reading program called SRAs, and I don't remember what those initials stood for, but the program itself came to represent BLACKMAIL in my mind. I loved to read, but these particular reading activities bored me silly. Consequently, I was not motivated to read whatever schlock was on those color-coded cards, then answer the comprehension questions so I could advance to the next level. I just didn't care. Still, it was expected that we students would work through them at our own pace, and because I was a good student, I was expected to plow through them. Only, I wasn't.

Around this time, I had been pestering my mom to let me get my ears pierced. Sensing an opportunity to reinforce a lesson, and concerned about my recalcitrance toward the SRA program, she met with my teacher. They conspired to formulate a plan: if I could advance through the SRA cards to a certain color-coded level, I would be rewarded with a trip to the Mall, where a nice lady at Piercing Pagoda would use a gun-like device to inject gold studs into my 9-year-old earlobes. I was surprised that my mom would so blatantly collude with my teacher, but I wanted my ears pierced bad, so I gritted my teeth up through the dark green reading card and my mom made good on her promise, and my ears didn't sting for very long at all after the piercing. (Yes, Mom, I learned my lesson.)

Anyway. Last night, my kid's teacher talked of synthesizing and collaborating, and of collecting data points to track the kids' progress. She explained the grading scale (hint: it's not alphabetical). She uses a Promethean board with a "proximity tablet" she can walk around the room with, tapping on it with a stylus to present lessons, and the kids can participate by pressing buttons on their own desktop interactive voting device (think audience participation on America's Funniest Videos). The class keeps track of compliments paid to them by teachers and staff and can earn rewards when they reach a certain level. The have things like "guided reading" and "balanced literacy."

All of this made me wonder how the teachers manage to incorporate everything, organizing the kids into groups so they can collaborate to synthesize each concept. On its surface, It's so different from my own fourth grade experience, which featured blackboards and chalk, an alphabetical grading scale that was tracked by hand in a spiral-bound grading book, and the dreaded SRA reading program. It's amazing how much has changed for both students and teachers.

But what hasn't changed is the sense of community a school can represent.  At our kids' school, back-to-school night is a chance to say hi to neighbors and friends from our community, and reconnect with the teachers our kids have had throughout their years. I recall the same sense of community at my own elementary school, which was in a small town. The principal of my elementary school had been one of my mom's high school teachers. My dad's cousin ran the cafeteria. I had more than a few cousins in my class. Everyone knew everyone. It takes a village.

While my own elementary school experience was community based, I'm sure my parents' experience was even more so. Having been born and raised in the country, they attended one-room schools for their earlier grades. I have a book, published by the Perry Historians, called "A Scrapbook of Schoolhouses in Perry County" by Margie Becker of New Bloomfield, PA. It's a wonderful collection of the history of education where I grew up. It's also a testament to my ancestors' believe and involvement in education. The book includes lists of teachers at each schoolhouse and board of education members and directors, and I recognize many names on these lists, including neighbors, great aunts and uncles, my grandfather, and yes, my mom (who was school board president for some years). 

Here is a picture, from that book, of the elementary school where the blackmail occurred. It housed grades K-4 when I attended, plus one class each of grades 5-6, with the other 5/6 graders attending school in the "annex" (which was the basement of the medical center next to the school). Prior to the building of Greenwood Joint High School, this same building was where my mom attended high school. When GJHS opened, kids from Millerstown (my mom) and Liverpool (my dad) high schools all attended the new high school, and my parents were in the first class to graduate from GJHS.

  Millerstown elementary school

I made a note in this book that my dad attended both Lebkicher's and Gilfillen's schools, though I don't know which grades. So here they both are, Gilfillen's first:

Gilfillen's school

And Lebkicher's (sometimes spelled Lebkichler's), where my dad may have been taught by his Aunt Mae if I've got the years right:

Lebkicher's school

By the time I came along, both of these schoolhouses had been sold and turned into private homes.

I don't know if the teachers back in those days thought much about synthesis or collaboration, and certainly the body of knowledge and methods for teaching and assessing it have changed significantly. But the sense of community must have been magnified when only a handful of kids were in the room with one teacher.

We left last night's event feeling blessed live where we can send our kids to high-quality schools with all the latest technology, highly-educated teachers who obviously care about our kids, and a true sense of the school's role in building and supporting our community. I imagine my parents and grandparents felt the same way. So maybe, all things considered, things haven't changed all that much after all.

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